It’s a fascinating question. How many people are needed for a protest that topples a dictator? Harvard political scientist Erica Chenoweth calculates that about 3.5 percent of a country’s population must join street protests to successfully bring down a dictatorship, according to a BBC interview.
She also believes that a protest movement has double the chances of succeeding if it’s peaceful. Violence, she says, reduces support and sympathy for any movement.
Question: How many Venezuelans need to join peaceful street protests to topple the Nicolás Maduro dictatorship? With a population of 33 million, 1,155,000 Venezuelans would be required to push Maduro out, if we use Chenoweth’s calculations.
The interview did not specify if they have to hit the streets at the same time and in the same place, or over a period of time in several different places. But the reality is that there have been multiple peaceful protests against Maduro since the death of Hugo Chávez in March of 2013. And Maduro remains in power. So what went wrong in Venezuela? Protesters are killed, disappeared, jailed and tortured. That’s what happened.
A new 443-page report on Venezuela by the U. N. Human Rights Council is a terrifying guide to evil and cruelty. It lists, in full detail, the murders, violations, mutilations and abuses suffered by those who have opposed the Venezuelan dictatorship. And it accuses Maduro directly of knowing about these human rights violations.
“There are reasonable grounds to believe the President knew of violations and crimes, notably the arbitrary detentions and acts of torture or cruel, inhuman and degrading treatment, including acts of sexual violence,” said the report, based on confidential documents and interviews carried out in person or using “secure telephone or video connections.”
There’s more against Maduro: The investigators also had reason to believe that the president, “given his position of effective authority and control … , had knowledge of violations … against military dissidents and their associates, in particular, acts of torture.”
Thousands of Venezuelans have been murdered for opposing the Maduro regime. Their deaths are reported as “resisting authority,” which is just a euphemism. Many of these deaths took place during protests or operations to arrest dissidents. In 2019, there were 5,286 dead for “resisting authority” and in 2018 the murders totaled 7,523 according to a report by the Venezuelan Violence Observatory. That’s how the dictatorship disappears its opponents.
But before that, it tortures them. One 21-year-old arrested during a 2014 protest in Valencia reported that “as he was lying curled up on the ground, an officer approach[ed] him from behind while holding a rifle. He used the tip of the rifle to lower the underwear … he penetrated the anus with the point of the rifle, causing extreme pain.”
A sergeant arrested in 2019 after the publication of a video in which soldiers urged Venezuelans to join street protests also suffered terrible tortures. “They hit him with a bat and kicked him, including in his testicles. They asphyxiated him with a bag, electrocuted him in different soft parts of his body including behind his ears and on his testicles.” the report said. “He lost control of his bowels and the officers forced him to eat his own waste.” Other sergeants suffered similar treatment, according to the report.
Officials of the civilian SEBIN intelligence service and military counterintelligence, known as DGCIM, were also accused of having unprotected sex with female detainees. “Women in custody also faced additional risks of sexual exploitation and coercive transactional sex,” the report noted. The investigators also confirmed cases of “rape using body parts or objects.”
Maduro has of course rejected all the accusations. During an interview in Caracas in February of 2019, I confronted him with the complaints from Hugo Carvajal, his former intelligence chief who had said of Maduro, “you killed hundreds of people in the streets for demanding the rights that you stole from them.” Maduro, upset, replied that “there’s rule of law” in Venezuela and “no one can try to accuse me of crimes that I never committed.”
Well, the extensive and detailed U.N. report clearly established that there’s no rule of law in Venezuela, but rather a dictatorship. Without freedom or democracy. One former prosecutor complained that “the judiciary ‘kneels’ before the executive, which ‘runs absolutely everything,’” the report noted.
And this is precisely the context for the National Assembly elections in December. The opposition is more divided than ever. Opposition leader Henrique Capriles wants to participate. “The dilemma is to fight or not fight, and I have decided to fight,” he told the BBC. But interim President Juan Guaidó wants to boycott the elections because there’s no guarantee of impartiality and transparency.
The reality is that dictatorships are almost never toppled with votes. The nature of every dictator, like Maduro, is to impose his will and remain in power as long as possible using every tool, from murder and torture to fraud and corruption.
The United States is not going to invade Venezuela. President Trump’s adviser, Elliot Abrams, already said the opposition should not wait for “magical solutions.” The U.N. report included 65 recommendations, starting with “prompt, effective, thorough, independent, impartial and transparent investigations into the human rights violations and crimes.” That’s not going to happen. A dictator never investigates himself. So there’s nothing else to do than to continue to fight and protest inside the country.
The cost so far has been very high. But if Erica Chenoweth is right, Venezuelans will sooner or later topple the Maduro dictatorship. The numbers are on their side. All dictators fall. But not by themselves. A lot of people have to push.